by Marion Nestle
Jun 15 2009

Cancer statistics, 2009

I’ve just received the latest cancer statistics from CA–A Cancer Journal for Clinicians. The good news is that overall cancer death rates are down from their peak in the 1990s and rates of specific cancers are stable or decreasing.  None seems to be increasing.

Look at what is happening with heart disease (page 15).   Its rates have fallen by half since the mid-1970s for people under age 85.  Even for people over 85, heart disease death rates are falling rapidly.

Obesity is a risk factor for both cancer and heart disease.  So ideas about its effects on health need to take these statistics into consideration.  But before dismissing obesity as a risk factor, note that both heart disease and cancer remain leading causes of death, and both disproportionately affect low-income groups.   Groups with low income and education tend to have many risk factors for these diseases, among them high rates of obesity.

Public health still has plenty of work to do.

  • Jon

    Well, with heart disease, it’s that FATAL heart attacks are going down. It’s not so much lifestyle changes (Obesity’s gone up, as has diabetes, the biggest health change as a result of the low-fat campaign, as people replaced peanuts with white flour.) as much as it’s advances in medicine. Now of course, if you’re like me (and I’m assuming you are, given your specialty), you would prefer to prevent heart attacks before they happen. Of course, when you’ll get blasted by the “sound science” crowd for telling people how to do that like Shiriki Kumanyika was, it becomes difficult.

  • yea well it’ll be nice if the people in charge of the conversation can stop telling rich people to visit farmers markets on the weekends. instead, maybe focus more on the less fortunate instead of promoting some random farmer out in the boonies.

  • What’s interesting is the demographics of types of cancers – for instance, that in developed nations/areas there are higher percentages of breast/colon cancer than in other areas of the world. These are the markers that can show what lifestyle choices are affecting health.

  • Janet Camp

    I can only hope that this will stop the “alternative” med crowd from hawking their wares with the argument that cancer is a huge and growing threat (and that they, of course, have the “magic” cure–for sale). The message of science-based medicine has always been to eat well, achieve and maintain a healthy weight, exercise regularly, and see the doctor regularly, especially as you age–and it looks as though enough people have done so and combined with advances in treatment, we are seeing the reductions you report. Good news for those who have the income and information to benefit. Now, what can we do about the rest?

    Here in Milwaukee, a man named Will Allen (who recently won a MacArthur Foundation Genius Award) is growing produce, raising fish and chickens and composting tons of waste from city businesses in the heart of the city. It’s called GROWING POWER and it’s an urban farm (they have other properties as well) that provides fresh produce, very affordably, to an under served community as well as the finest restaurants. A real win-win!

  • Gillian

    And then there is this article from Medscape “Obesity Paradox Probed in New Review” which reached me just today. Although obesity is a risk factor, it is better to start from there for your survival. At least that’s how I read it.

  • Jon

    Well, it all varies. All cancers at their root have a genetic cause; it just happens that there are lifestyle modifications which may reduce the frequency of positive mutations or help your body fight cancer. (And similarly, other lifestyle modifications, like smoking, alcoholism, and use of anabolic steroids, increase the frequency of positive mutations and impair your body’s ability to fight cancer.)

    It doesn’t help much that fiber not only didn’t prevent colon cancer, but we were encouraging people to eat white flour to get fiber. And white flour DOES increase your risk of colon cancer.

  • Mary

    Boy, that’s an odd spike in incidence in 1992ish.

    I’m glad to see incidence declining after the introduction of GMOs into commercial distribution (1996). The curves flatten and then fall.

    Seriously, though, if it had gone the other way you’d never hear the end of it.

  • The article states that the precise number of cancer cases diagnosed each year is unknown. The statistics are estimates, not facts.

  • Anthro


    What’s your point? The estimates are scientifically generated and the result is the same.


    Who ever recommended eating white flour to get fiber? Never heard such a thing.

  • Jon

    Anthro: Back in the 1990s, yes, I remember cereal and bread as “an important source of fiber”. Of course, all of this was white flour and sugar.

  • Anthro


    Oh, I see what you mean. This is common, even with registered dieticians. If the manufacturer adds a bit of bran back to the junk cereal, they count it as fiber, which is technically true, but, as we know, it is much better to simply eat the whole grain to begin with.

    I complain at my coop frequently that they have no whole wheat bread. They always drag me over the the bakery section and show me “multi grain” and similar types of bread, whereupon I show them the label that has white flour as the main ingredient. I bake my own (sourdough) bread now except on the hottest days of summer.

    By the way, sugar is sugar (brown, white, whatever), don’t you think? No excuse for putting in cereal or bread at all. Personally, I eat oatmeal and other grains with fruit. Yogurt is the big cheater for sugar. The little containers that take up huge dairy section space all have sugar in addition to the fruit (except the plain, which is hard to find often). Yup, I eat the plain. Once you get desensitized to sugar, the plain is preferable.